I had no idea that there was such a large albino population in Tanzania nor that this group of people is both ostracised and sought after. However they are sought after in a frightening fashion as traditional healers believe that albino body parts have mystical healing powers. Membratu, an Ethiopian dermatology consultant working at the RDTC told me a terrifying story of an albino man waking up to find someone trying to chop off his hand! This practice is still ongoing and will probably continue whilst such a large proportion of the population believe in the power of traditional medicine. I was reminded of this yesterday on our ward round when we were seeing a very sick HIV positive young man who had been admitted with anaemia and widespread Kaposi sarcoma. The medical student told us that he had stopped taking his anti-retroviral (ARVs) drugs last year and when I asked why I was told a long and involved story about a supposed priest/ healer who last year was selling a drink of holy water for 500 Tanzanian shillings (about 25p) which he claimed was a cure for everything from HIV to cancer to Diabetes and heart disease. Apparently there were massive queues and people visiting to take the waters included government ministers as well as hopefuls from all over the country. It seemed there was a savvy business mind behind this project as although the “healing water” was cheap as chips the refreshments were not and food cost up to £4, which is a fortune for many Tanzanians! So half the country stopped taking their ARVs and insulin and beta blockers etc with fairly dire consequences.
The albino population is increasing mainly due to the fact that these people continue to be ostracised so tend to marry amongst themselves. The RDTC runs a fantastic outreach programme to support the albino population. Outreach clinics are run usually once a week and we drive to different areas in one of the two large RDTC landrovers. For those non-medics amongst you albino patients do not have pigment in their skin, so in Africa they are at great risk of skin cancer. It is therefore imperative that sun protective measures are begun right from birth. Most albinos have poor eyesight and many are blind due to the lack of pigment in their eyes so the outreach programme provides sun protective clothing, wide brimmed hats and sunglasses as well as sun block for free.
|Ready for work but where are the patients?|
|up a bit, left a bit.....|
Working presently at the RDTC is a brilliant, warm and funny Spanish pharmacist called Mafalda who reminds me of a cross between Amy Winehouse (who she dressed up as at a Halloween party and Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona). She has a masters in Tropical Medicine and was working with albinos in Malawi before coming to Tanzania. She is employed by a Spanish NGO on an excellent project and is raising money for a small building in the RDTC grounds where suncream can be manufactured by local people using local ingredients. Last week there were queues of albino patients at the RDTC who had been given 3 different suncreams to try for 24 hours and then they came back to fill in a questionnaire about their preferences. Interestingly the patients’ preference was the least expected one as it caused the most whitening of the skin. It is always fascinating how ones preconceived ideas are
I took advantage of the long hours in the bus to take Swahili lessons from Alice a Resident from Rwanda. I have promised to teach her paediatric dermatology in return. I had a chance to practice my new skills when we stopped at a great fruit and vegetable market on the way home. I was very proud when I could ask the price of cucumbers “Ni bei gani tango?” but unfortunately couldn’t understand the answer! I can also say “that’s too expensive, reduce the price as I work here” although the dramatic effect is lessened by reading it off a scrappy piece of paper! It was interesting to see that you pay about half the price of a pineapple if you are shopping with a local….
|how much for all the tomatoes?|
|Rebecca helping to carry the shopping home!|